A recent Supreme Court ruling has placed Pakistan’s former PM, his family and his party in an unenviable position as a general election looms. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports

As expected, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has now disqualified deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif for life, making him ineligible to stand for public office again.

Last year, on July 28, the country’s apex court had deposed him from office after concluding that he was unfit to hold the job of prime minister because he wasn’t ‘sadiq’ (truthful) and ‘amin’ (trustworthy), as required by the Constitution of Pakistan. This was the first time that the 1973 Constitution’s articles 62 and 63 regarding these attributes of a public office-holder were so strictly applied and an elected primeminister was removed from office through a judicial order.

However, it was not clear from that verdict whether Sharif’s disqualification was indefinite, or for a specific period of time only. So on April 13 this year, the Supreme Court issued another verdict, declaring that the three-time prime minister would remain disqualified forever. It has even stripped him of the right to lead his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

One after another, Nawaz Sharif is losing his legal cases and the political space available to him is shrinking. More cases are being heard against him by the accountability courts and it looks as though he could face conviction in the coming months before the general election that may be held in July.

If convicted, he could even be sent to prison – a possibility Sharif himself hinted at recently when he remarked that a room in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jailis already being prepared for him. This is the same prison where another deposed prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was held before his execution on April 4, 1979, after his conviction by the Supreme Court in a murder case. Military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq had earlier ousted Bhutto in a coup and ordered his trial. Although there is no murder charge against Nawaz Sharif, he could effectively be evicted from politics, kept embroiled in court cases, and imprisoned.

Such was the severity of the original Supreme Court verdict against him last year that it accused him of ‘trying to fool the people in and outside the Parliament by hiding his assets – the undeclared salary from his son’s company’. Nawaz Sharif and his supporters have highlighted the unfairness of this charge against him by arguing that he wasnot convicted for misuse of power or corruption, but on the basis of a minor technical issue: not declaring the small amount of money that was deposited into his bank account as the director of a company run by his elder son, Hasan Nawaz from the UAE.

The army high command has made it clear it will stand by the judiciary

It was obvious that the PML-N would bitterly criticise the court’s decision, but it made no effort to challenge the judgement on the streets, where the party remains strong. The former prime minister and the PML-N had given their word that they would accept the verdicts when they agreed to the formation of a judicial commission to probe the Panama Papers leaks, whichgave details of Sharif family members setting up offshore companies and acquiring properties abroad to stash their wealth and avoid paying taxes.

Nawaz Sharif is sticking by his pledge, despite adopting an increasingly defiant stance and questioning who is behind the courts’ unprecedented authority. On a few occasions, Sharif, his daughter Maryam (his political heir) andsons Hasan and Hussain, have returned to Pakistan from the UK, where the family owns the properties that are subject to investigations, to face trial in the courts. This is despite speculation and criticism that they had run away and would remain abroad to avoid imprisonment. However, they did not even stay in Pakistan long enough to look after Nawaz Sharif’s ailing wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, who is in hospital after undergoing surgery.

Meanwhile, the army high command has made it clear it will stand by the judiciary and support its judgements in a bid to strengthen the rule of law in the country. Critics, however, point to the military’s key role in decision-making in Pakistan, even though it has resisted the temptation to capture power, despite the opportunities that have arisen due to a chaotic political situation and the economic and security challenges facing the country. General Pervez Musharraf was the last military ruler of Pakistan and his long reign – from 1999 to 2007, when he overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s democratically elected government – wasnot known for any major achievements or reforms. Like most dictators, Musharraf eventually oversaw the formation of a king’s party, PML-Q, with the support of political opportunists to sustain himself in power.

Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification has placed his family and his party in a difficult and unenviable situation.  Although he has vowed to go to the court of the people and lead his party to victory in the coming general election, it remains to be seen if he will be able to address public meetings on a regular basis, considering the legal battles he and his family will be embroiled in as they fight to clear his name. Aware of the challenges ahead, his ruling PML-N has already named his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif as its new president and prime ministerial candidate.

It has been a long wait for Shahbaz, who, as the chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, has earned a long-held reputation as a good administrator. In fact, the PML-N’s victories in previous elections have been largely attributed to his performance as Punjab’s chief minister. Sincethe province holds more than half the seats in the National Assembly and has the biggest representation in the armed forces and bureaucracy, any party and politician who wins there in the polls effectively wins the right to rule Pakistan.

Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s chief minister
Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s chief minister

One person gladdened by Nawaz Sharif’s woes isPakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan, the former cricketer who has doggedly pursued the objective of getting the PML-N founder disqualified and convicted by challenging him both in the courts and on the streets. Now that Nawaz Sharif is disqualified, Khan is gunning for Shahbaz Sharif in the hope that this willclear the path for him to win the general election and fulfilhis cherished desire to become Pakistan’s prime minister. He is hoping that PML-N lawmakers and other ‘electables’ may flock to his banner once Nawaz Sharif is convicted and his party’s prospects of returning to power are diminished. Indeed, some PML-N lawmakers have already quit the party on one pretext or another and more could abandon ship if Sharif is convicted and his brother Shahbaz also becomes mired in court cases.

Imran Khan hopes that PML-N lawmakers and other ‘electables’ may flock to his banner

Another contender for the prime minister’s job is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year old son of late premier Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari. While he has yet to contest an election and has no administrative experience, as the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) since 2007,he and his supporters are hoping that the Bhutto name, made famous by his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and mother, Benazir Bhutto, will enable him to attract voters to his cause. However, the PPP has suffered a decline in recent years, more so after its unimpressive five-year rule from 2008-2013, when Bilawal’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, was accused of corruption and failing to deliver on election promises.

Given the prevailing circumstances, Pakistan’s forthcoming election will largely be a contest between the PML-N and the PTI. The outcome will depend on the ability of Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif to hold their party together in the face of mounting challenges. As for Imran Khan, he must snatch Punjab from the Sharifs in order to place himself as prime candidate for the premiership.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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